by Eric Nauert

In his iconic early 20th Century paintings, Norman Rockwell regularly depicted children as sinewy, springy, slightly mischievous, and boundlessly energetic urchins. They played leapfrog, plunged into swimming holes, walked on stilts, climbed weathervanes, and traipsed through quaint old neighborhoods alongside of their trusted beagles. An afternoon snack consisted of a shiny apple fresh-plucked from a tree. How foreign these idyllic images must seem to most of today’s kids.

As the new century rolled in, it brought with it a technological revolution which rapidly reduced the public playground to a handheld 3” glass screen. Nowadays, physical exertion is relegated to a child’s two thumbs. For sustenance, a kid might reach for a piece of genetically modified fruit, a hormone injected hamburger, a sugar-saturated soda, or bag of sodium-drenched potato chips. With advancements like these, is it any wonder that obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years?

Recognizing that today’s kids did not design their toxic and sedentary lifestyles, but were merely born into them, University of West Georgia Senior Lecturer Bridgette Stewart decided to offer them a few healthy alternatives.

“University of West Georgia’s Department of Leadership and Instruction has partnered with Tanner Health System to offer the six-week Kids ‘n’ Fitness program here at the university,” Bridgette explained. “It is a physician-referred program that focuses on both the parent and the child learning more about healthy eating and nutrition and incorporating physical activity into their daily lives.”

UWG Instructor of Health and Physical Education, and co-leader of the Kids ‘n’ Fitness program, Chrissy Knoll, described a typical evening:

“Each session is 45 minutes for the parents and child together for a nutrition topic, and then we take the kids separately for a 30-minute physical activity, and the parents stay for a 30-minute parent support group.”

Most of the children seemed genuinely intrigued by the idea of examining nutrition labels and calculating such elusive information as their sugar intake. But they were equally excited about playing in a university gymnasium and sharing space with college athletes. To assist in their effort to move kids from place to place, and ensure that they stayed on task, the instructors called upon several UWG resources.

“We were able to incorporate three of our degree programs here at the university to help us put on this event,” Chrissy said. “One was the health and physical education teacher educators. They were in charge of putting on the physical activity for the children, instructing on the activity for that day, and leading that group. We also had sport management students to handle the organization and the check-in when the kids came back with their log books, and we had health and community wellness students observing and helping, as well.”

In only a few weeks, Bridgette noticed changes in the kids—in their energy levels, attitudes, and awareness.

“They really, really enjoy the physical activity,” she said. “A lot of them are having some issues at school, and they come here and they’re with a group of their peers, and they really dive into the program, and they’re really involved in learning about the nutrition and reading the food labels. So I’ve really seen an appreciation for a healthier lifestyle, and that’s what we want the kids to take away.”

Bridgette and Chrissy viewed the Kids ‘n’ Fitness program as just a starting point. Their ultimate aim was to reshape the entire family’s routine and raise their level of awareness about nutrition and health for the long term.

“I really hope the kids become more involved in their daily decision-making when it comes to healthy eating and physical activity, so they take a little more ownership of that,” Bridgette said. “I also hope it becomes a more holistic approach with the family, that it’s not just for the child, but that the parents become very involved in learning how to read the nutrition labels, learning how to shop for healthy foods at the store, and also learning how to include physical activity in a lot of the daily activities that they participate in.”

Before leading the Kids ‘n’ Fitness program, Bridgette had few opportunities to work with children in her career. She found this experience “very rewarding,” and hopes to continue the program and the partnership with Tanner Health System in the future. And she believes unhealthy or overweight children should remain steadfastly optimistic about improving their situations.

“The first thing I would tell them is that everybody is different, everybody’s situation is different, and that everybody can focus on getting healthier,” she said. “You just have to find that niche for you, and that activity that you like to do. But that support system is so important, so I would say the next time you visit your pediatrician, to ask about Kids ‘n’ Fitness, or a program like Kids ‘n’ Fitness, and see if you can get involved with a group of your peers, a social group that I think would really make a difference.”

Montana, a devoted Kids ‘n’ Fitness student, seemed determined to lose weight and take on a healthier lifestyle. She began to include fresh fruit in her daily diet and make other healthy choices like eating baked chicken instead of fried. But when asked what her favorite part of the Kids ‘n’ Fitness program was, she didn’t hesitate to respond.

“I like playing the games!” she exclaimed, and broke out in a smile worthy of a painting.

Posted on March 4, 2016